Friday, September 21, 2012

Top Ten Books That Made Me Think

I'm borrowing this "meme" from a friend of mine (and SDSU grad - hi Jenna!), because I think it's an interesting idea to explore. What are the top ten books that you found most thought-provoking? Which books have you finished with a sigh, closed the cover, and then pondered before getting up from your favorite reading spot? To narrow it down, my list below features ten children's or young adult books from the last decade (in order of publication), but you're invited to chime in about any book in the comments!

Feed, by M.T. Anderson (2002)
This book is the cornerstone of contemporary dystopian fiction. Narrator Titus's society is an America that is set far into the future and yet disturbingly imaginable today. The "feed" refers to what is essentially an internet implant in the brain of everyone who can afford it. If you can't afford it, you're automatically set back in a society where everything has been corporatized and your worth is measured by how many things you buy. In our world of ever-increasing internet surveillance (Were you just looking at shoes on Nordstrom's website? The internet knows! Get ready to see pop-up ads on every site you visit!) and accessibility, the possibility of a life lived almost entirely within our own heads feels alarmingly close.

What Night Brings, by Carla Trujillo (2003) This is a tough book to get through, focused as it is on a young girl's story of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her father. Narrator Marci speaks with a maturity beyond her years – she knows it’s not her fault that her father abuses her – but she is still young enough and naïve enough to believe that praying will be her salvation. She struggles with her sexuality, but she doesn’t think that’s the reason her father beats her. With a wry sense of humor and a fierce determination to protect herself and her sister from their parents, Marci brings a thoughtful levity to this difficult story.

Looking for Alaska, by John Green (2005)This story of a teenage boy's first year of boarding school and the people who make his life worthwhile will sucker-punch you. Tucked into this coming-of-age tale full of true-to-life observations is a heart-wrenching twist that remains unresolved, which emphasizes the trauma even further. Not only does John Green's realistic, poignant storytelling elevate this book above the popular fiction fray, but his characters are so finely and vividly drawn that what happens to them feels like it could be happening to you.

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling (2007)
Ramble Alert: My assessment of this one is completely un-theoretical and lies simply in the fact that I personally felt devastated by Rowling's narrative choices. Spoiler Alert: I'm going to talk about who dies. Five years later, I still feel morose when I think about Fred's death. How could J.K. Rowling kill off a twin? My brothers-in-law are twins, and knowing their bond made the death of a Weasley twin all the more emotional for me. I cried and cried and cried. While there are certainly many aspects of this book fit for pondering, I'll be honest: the only reason this is on my list is because I am heartbroken for life.

Last Night I Sang to the Monster, Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2009) 
Teenage alcoholic Zach is in rehab, where he encounters other troubled souls with ambiguous pasts. Zach reluctantly works through his own psychological trauma with the help of a counselor and a fellow inmate, but his progress is not without setbacks. This is a thoughtful, poetic look at addiction and redemption.

Before I Fall, Lauren Oliver (2010)Lauren Oliver's eloquently written debut novel follows the unusual story of a quintessential mean girl, Samantha, who...dies in the first chapter. Living in a purgatory not unlike Groundhog Day, Samantha has to figure out the significance of her death. By the end of the book, I found myself rooting for this character who was originally hateful. Lauren Oliver manages to represent the seedy side of high school, contemplate teen suicide, highlight meaningful interactions with family, and explore untimely death in such a way that you contemplate your own life choices even if you're not in high school anymore.

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (2011)
Complementary to Feed in many ways, Ready Player One brings to life a world of ubiquitous virtual reality. In a ruined and poverty-stricken America, tech-savvy citizens go about their entire lives on the internet, hooked into rigs that allow them to go to school, hang out with friends, and journey to other worlds all from the relative comfort of one location. Tying the narrative together is a global quest for millions of dollars, hidden in the vast internet communication system by its inventor. The world-building in this book is simply incredible, with so many worlds-within-worlds that by the time you finish the story, you're not even sure of your own reality.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein (2012)Two brave young women from Great Britain, one intense friendship, and World War II comprise the main elements of Code Name Verity. This fictionalized account of a significant moment in European history will make you want to embark on your own historical research after you close the back cover.

The Drowning Instinct
, by Ilsa Bick (2012)
I adore Ilsa Bick's writing. She also wrote one of my favorite dystopian novels, Ashes, which I urge you to read because it is so freaky and good. But The Drowning Instinct is based entirely in contemporary reality, and it tackles a taboo sexual relationship between a 16-year-old girl and her science teacher. There are no good guys or bad guys, no black-and-white good decisions or bad decisions, and no happy endings in this book. The narrator, Jenna, is complicated and troubled, but so is her teacher, so are her parents, and so is the detective who tries to help her after a traumatic incident. The Drowning Instinct carefully examines the different perspectives of people who all have their own questionable motivations.

Every Day, by David Levithan (2012) 
What if you didn't have your own body and always had to exist in someone else's? Would you identify with one gender more than the other? The narrator of Every Day, simply called "A," has no body. A wakes up every day possessing a different teenage body, boy or girl or transgender. A falls in love with Rhiannon, who tries to love A back, even though A often appears as a girl and Rhiannon identifies as straight. This book brings up wonderful, thought-provoking questions about the nature of love, the restrictions of gender, and the ever-present human desire for self-control.

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